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College Students and Mental Health: Part 2, Coping Skills

Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC

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This is the second post in a three-part series in which I share my insights into college students’ behavioral health. In Part 1, I talk about what stressors students face. In Part 2, I examine coping skills students use to get through, and in Part 3, I share what parents can do to help.

You’ve heard the term, but what are “coping skills?” Coping skills are thoughts and behaviors that can help college students (and anyone for that matter) get more comfortable with, minimize and deal with stressors. Coping skills can provide temporary reprieve or long-term solace.

As you’ll see below, many coping skills are kind of no-brainers (e.g., talk to a friend!) while others may not be as obvious (e.g., healthier eating). I’ve split up some of the most common coping skills I teach students into five categories. 

The best way parents can encourage their college-aged kids to use these skills is by having subtle conversations about what’s not working in their life. Starting out by giving unsolicited advice doesn’t work so well (as I’m sure you already know). 

1. Diversions

A diversion is a distraction, a coping skill that helps college students avoid destructive or unhealthy thoughts. This provides a temporary interruption until they can think clearly again.

Not all diversions are fun but they can still provide good distraction. Some typical examples include:

  • Exercise (something requiring focus like weight lifting)
  • Reading a book — preferably fiction
  • Listening to (chill) music
  • Listening to a podcast 
  • Writing/journaling about something other than current thoughts and feelings
  • Spending time with your pet
  • Playing a game or solving a puzzle (Solitaire, Sudoku, crosswords, etc.)
  • Doing chores like cleaning your bedroom or the kitchen
  • Hiking a nearby trail
  • Playing an instrument like a guitar
  • Helping someone else with something they’re struggling with

2. Thinking Differently

Think different” was an advertising slogan used from 1997 to 2002 by Apple. They used grainy, black and white photos of famous people who changed the world by thinking (and acting) differently. The slogan was a clever response to IBM's "Think" and became iconic in the marketing world.

So what does this have to do with coping skills? One of the fundamental things I work on with college students is to get them to essentially think differently. Students often have their emotions dictate their behavior and they benefit from thinking differently about how to improve their lives.

Thinking differently — or developing what clinicians call “cognitive skills” — helps students identify unhealthy thinking landmines and possibly reverse the negative downward spiral.

Here are a few cognitive skills that work well:

  • Find a mantra or phrase associated with something positive 
  • Consider cost/benefit analysis of a decision
  • Consider other perspectives in new situations
  • Practice observing (without judgment) thoughts and feelings 
  • Reward oneself when accomplishing something hard or big
  • List and express gratitude

3. Social Coping Skills

This set of coping skills is pretty instinctive for most. It’s the use of our social network. Sharing their struggles and talking through the pain helps students more accurately identify problems and process uncomfortable feelings. It’s also an opportunity to accept support and advice.

Here are examples of ways college students can cultivate social skills:

  • Share thoughts/feelings with a friend...and practice being vulnerable
  • Practice saying "no" to unhealthy situations
  • Organize online games
  • Ignore yourself (for a bit) and support a friend
  • Practice asking for what you need

4. Physical Coping Skills

Physical coping skills are focused on changing behaviors in order to improve a situation, decrease negative feelings, and promote mental space to get through tough things. These are bodily coping strategies that we can practice to minimize undue stress.

Some behaviors I encourage my clients to adopt are:

  • Focus on heartbeat for 30 seconds
  • Deep or mindful breathing
  • Reduce caffeine and stimulants
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes
  • Take a nap
  • Eat healthy foods: fruit, vegetables, nuts, salmon
  • Reduce sugar intake

5. Unhealthy Coping Behaviors to Avoid

Not all coping skills are healthy. While they may bring a temporary sense of relief and comfort, these coping strategies can negatively hurt you in the long run.

Here are several unhealthy coping behaviors I see many college students use:

  • Alcohol and drugs
  • Reliance on prescription medications
  • Expressing disproportionate anger at others
  • External locus of control (blaming others for bad things that happen)
  • Cutting/self-harm
  • Catastrophizing

That’s it for Part 2. Coping skills are not meant to fix anything. Coping skills buy us time to develop practices that become healthy routines. I certainly don’t teach them with the expectation that my clients will miraculously be depression and anxiety-free. It’s a way to get through to the other side of emotional struggle until clinical intervention can fully take hold. 

Parents often feel helpless and sometimes even a bit hopeless when their kids are struggling in college. Next time, in Part 3, we’ll examine what parents can do to most effectively help during such a chaotic and unpredictable time. 

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Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and Nationally Certified Counselor. He's author of The Insider's Guide to Parenting and holds a BA in Outdoor Leadership and an MS in Community Counseling with a focus on teen and college student anxiety, depression, substance use, and motivation issues. Rob lives, runs and mountain bikes in Bloomington, Indiana. Visit Motivate Counseling to learn more.
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